BOFFINS AT the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have figured out that graphene, sheets of atom-thick carbon, could be used to make chips a million times faster.
The researchers have worked out that slowing the speed of light to the extent that it moves slower than flowing electrons can create an “optical boom”, the optical equivalent of a sonic boom.
Slowing the speed of light is no mean feat, but the clever folks at MIT managed it by using the honeycomb shape of carbon to slow photons to several hundredths of their normal speed in a free space, explained researcher Ido Kaminer.
Meanwhile, the characteristics of graphene speed up electrons to a million metres a second, or around 1/300 of the speed of light in a vacuum.
The optical boom is caused when the electrons passing though the graphene reach the speed of light, effectively breaking its barrier in the carbon honeycomb and causing a shockwave of light.
As electrons move faster than the trapped light, they bleed plasmons, a form of virtual particle that represents the oscillation of electrons on the graphene’s surface.
Effectively, it is the equivalent of turning electricity into light. This is nothing new – Thomas Edison did it a century ago with fluorescent tubes – but it can efficiently and controllably generate plasmons at a scale that works with microchip technology.
The discovery could allow chip components to be made from graphene to enable the creation of light-based circuits. These circuits could be the next step in the evolution of chip and computing technology, as the transfer of data through light is far faster than using electrons in today’s chips, even the fast pixel-pushing ones.
So much faster that it’s “six orders of magnitude higher than what is used in electronics”, according to Kaminer. That’s up to a million times faster in plain English.
“There’s a lot of excitement about graphene because it could be easily integrated with other electronics,” said physics professor Marin Soljačić, a researcher on the project, who is confident that MIT can turn this theoretical experiment into a working system. “I have confidence that it should be doable within one to two years.”
This is a pretty big concept and almost sci-fi stuff, but we’re always keen to see smaller and faster chips. It also shows that the future tech envisioned by the world of sci-fi may not be that far away.